Force of Evil was the first film Abraham Polonsky directed. It was also the last film he would direct for a long, long time.
Polonsky was blacklisted after he refused to testify before HUAC in 1951. He went on to write screenplays under a variety of pseudonyms, but he didn’t receive another directorial credit until he made the Robert Redford film Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here (1969).
A lot of great directors were blacklisted in the 1950s, but Polonsky’s inability to make more films seems especially tragic. Force of Evil is not only a great film, but it’s the kind of scathing critique of the foundations of America’s financial system that’s lacking from most crime films in the 1950s.
Polonsky wrote the screenplay for Robert Rossen’s boxing masterpiece Body and Soul (1947), which starred John Garfield. Body and Soul was a big hit, and it’s alluded to on the poster for Force of Evil above.
Force of Evil wasn’t as big a hit for John Garfield. There’s even some dispute over the original running time of this film, since M-G-M treated it as a B picture, and wanted it under 90 minutes so it could fit comfortably on the bottom half of a double bill.
Despite all that, it’s a film that’s aged remarkably well. It’s one of the best films Garfield ever starred in, and it’s one of the greatest film noirs ever made.
Force of Evil is based on Ira Wolfert’s 1943 novel Tucker’s People. Polonsky collaborated with Wolfert on the screenplay.
Garfield plays Joe Morse, a lawyer for the powerful mobster Ben Tucker (Roy Roberts). The film begins with a montage of Wall Street and Joe telling the viewer, in voiceover, that he’s about to make his first million dollars.
On the Fourth of July, most of the suckers who play the numbers play “776” as a superstitious form of patriotism. Tucker has a complicated plan that will force 776 to hit on July 4th, which will put all of the smaller numbers operations out of business when they’re forced to pay out. He’ll swoop in and take control of all the numbers rackets, just like he took control of beer during Prohibition.
Joe Morse is young, slick, and on the verge of being fabulously wealthy. His older brother Leo Morse (Thomas Gomez) is old, overweight, and will never be well-to-do. He runs a small, neighborhood numbers racket (or “bank,” as they are known in the film). He may be taking suckers’ money, but the stakes are small, he pays out what he promises, and he cares about the people he employs.
Joe knows what the Fourth of July has in store for Leo and everyone like him. As Tucker’s lawyer, he’s not able to tell Leo exactly what’s going to happen, but he tries to warn him. When that doesn’t work, he tries to pull strings that will force his brother out of the numbers racket before it’s too late, but it only makes things worse.
Polonsky showed his cinematographer, George Barnes, some of Edward Hopper’s Third Avenue paintings to give him an idea of how he wanted the film to look. Force of Evil uses a lot of single-source lighting and sharp focus, and it’s full of simple but beautiful compositions.
All of the actors in the film give good performances, including Beatrice Pearson as a girl who works for Leo, and whom he considers a daughter, and Marie Windsor in full femme fatale mode as Tucker’s wife Edna.
Thomas Gomez’s scenes with Garfield are especially powerful. Their dialogue wouldn’t be out of place in a stage play, since Polonsky isn’t afraid to elevate their language to poetic, mythic heights.
There’s not a lot of violence in Force of Evil, but what there is makes a tremendous impact. One sequence toward the end of the film is as good as anything Francis Ford Coppola or Martin Scorsese did in any of their gangster films. (Incidentally, Scorsese is a great admirer of Force of Evil. His video introduction to the film is the sole special feature on the gorgeous-looking Blu-ray from Olive Films.) You can watch that scene in the clip below, although it should go without saying that it contains spoilers: